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In Barrow, climate and cultural research go hand in hand

By Bonney Bowman 6:57 AM February 7, 2014

Science has been a feature on the North Slope for decades

BARROW – Barrow is the biggest city on the North Slope.

It’s home to around 5,000 people, many of them Alaska Natives who’ve called the city home for generations.

They live side by side with one of the most advanced scientific facilities in Alaska, pairing traditional practices with modern innovation.

Kyle Custard and a team of graduate students from Purdue University are studying climate change, examining the air and the plentiful snow for traces of iodine.

They trudge out into the night, snow chamber in hand, battling intense winds and wind chills in the minus-40s. This snow may hold a clue about climate change. It’s something no one else has studied in a place few people think to work.

“Not a lot of people ever come up here this far north and you don’t experience this anywhere else in the world,” Custard said.

Science has been a feature on the North Slope since the 1950s, when the Navy landed in the Alaska Native town to build the Naval Arctic Research Lab, NARL.

The campus is now managed by UMIAQ, part of the local native corporation. Working here requires planning, permits and protection; something the UMIAQ staff provides using their wealth of ancestral knowledge.

They also have workspace at the BARC – Barrow Arctic Research Center.

One of the people using this modern technology to explore the past is archeologist Dr. Anne Jensen.

The BARC’s lab space and deep freezers are ideal for her native artifacts.

Jensen studies the Inupiat people, the ancestors of those who currently call Barrow home.

She said being able to work so near her dig sites is beneficial, both for the artifacts she studies and the community they come from.

“It lets it be here. It lets people come and see it,” Jensen said. “You can take stuff to elders. The stuff is in the community. There’s just a lot of advantages to that.”

UMIAQ leaders say many are surprised to learn about the amenities available for research in Barrow, a place where traditional parkas and skin boats can be found next to snowmachines and pickup trucks.

A lot of the work here is dedicated to climate research, like that done by Custard and his team.

“The Arctic is warming a lot faster that the rest of the planet,” he said. “That’s another big issue.”

The rapid changes, like receding ice and shrinking hunting grounds, are forcing those who rely on subsistence lifestyles to adapt as well, while the latest tools help to forward our understanding of the world around us and how its changes impact those who’ve called the North Slope home for more than a thousand years.

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